When my boyfriend of seven years proposed to me, I said No, mostly because I feared making an intractable mistake. Five years later, I was slightly more courageous and said Yes to the second man who proposed; He pulled the plug four months later.
Confused and raw, I determined to create a criterion that could guide me through the sometimes murky waters of dating and engagement. In the months that followed, I fabricated more than one spreadsheet titled, How to know if your significant other is a good match. Twenty-three years of marriage and 20 years of pastoring later, I have distilled that spreadsheet into a few questions:
1. Does This Person Have Integrity?
It’s never been easier to craft a flawless personae. Because so much relating happens electronically, it can sometimes be difficult to know if the person appearing on your screen is an idealized version created by clever wordsmithing (and possibly a few minutes in Photoshop) or the real deal.
Even after you’ve spent time with someone and learned to trust them, it’s worth asking a few deeper questions to discern whether they are authentic. Does she speak the truth even when it costs her? Is he the same person in private as in public? Is she willing to make personal sacrifices on behalf of others?
Proverbs 11:3 offers a sobering take on this character trait, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.”
2. Do I Respect This Person?
Not sometimes. Not kind of. But do I consistently and unreservedly respect this man or woman?
When we respect someone, there is a marked absence of eye rolling, cynicism, sarcasm, disdain and second guessing. Admiring a character trait (for example, the ability to speak in public) is not the same as respecting the whole person.
(And to clarify, we can simultaneously respect someone and disagree with them. My husband and I differ on several important topics but this does not undercut my esteem for him.)
3. Can I Continue to Respect and Love This Person if Their Most Annoying Habit or Significant Weakness Never Changes?
All of our good intentions get tested when we come face to face with another’s limitations. In the early stages of a relationship, it’s nearly effortless to overlook flaws and sometimes even unmistakeable warning signs, in part because our bodies create feel good hormones.
Once the dawn of the relationship moves into the bright, mid-day sun, the oxytocin production gradually tapers off, which radically improves our discernment. After realizing that he actually does not like to express affection, after the twentieth time she interrupts you, after discovering he avoids conflict despite the costs—love and respect can be a bit more difficult to come by.
Most of us assume one of two things when we begin a relationship: that the other person will change simply because they love us or that our magnanimous, abundant love will compensate for their limitations. I regret to inform you, but that’s seldom the case. It’s more likely that the other’s weaknesses and profound differences will, from time to time, make you question why you said yes to a first date. You may feel so irritated and incapable of offering love that it will both terrify you and make you wonder if you really are a Christian.
Love and respect should not be contingent upon the other person being perfect—because that’s never going to happen this side of heaven. But while authentic love and respect transcend the other’s weaknesses and limitations, there are certain issues which should not be ignored. Chronic lying, stinginess (or other controlling behaviors), abusive streaks, etc., are reason enough to hit the pause button and seek guidance.
4. Does This Person Deeply Love God?
When my husband and I were dating, I appreciated his sense of humor, found him attractive, and deeply admired his intelligence. But what truly won me over was his hunger for God. He prayed with intensity and depth, he worshiped with abandon, he chased after God with every ounce of his being, and he invited me to accompany him.
I want to become like Christ more than I want anything else. Because this is such a counter-cultural goal, his companionship along the journey has been one of the most inspirational aspects of our marriage.
5. Does This Person Encourage Me in Word and in Action?
God sets dreams and gifts in each one of us. For these gifts to be expressed and the dreams to be realized, we need both encouragement and advocacy. In healthy relationships, we take turns supporting and sacrificing for each other. Early in our marriage, when my husband was in graduate school, I had to shoulder most of the household chores and parenting duties. Currently, he’s working three jobs so I can pursue writing. A relationship that focuses predominantly on the needs of one person typically lacks balance and depth.
Relationships rarely travel down a well marked, linear path. As such, we need to pull off the road from time to time and evaluate whether we’re heading in the direction we desire.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).